Many states around the country kicked off their legislative sessions last month. There has already been a flurry of legislative activity stemming from increased awareness about the extent of the untested rape kit backlog and how this problem represents a failure of the criminal justice system to protect survivors and hold offenders accountable. With more states introducing legislation to audit their untested rape kits, mandate kit submission and testing deadlines, track rape kits, and provide survivors with rights to information and notification, we are making progress to end the national backlog of untested rape kits. Joyful Heart is working with key stakeholders to pass evidence-based legislation that is in the best interest of survivors.
Since January 2017, 47 rape kit reform bills have been introduced in 24 states.
Some states, like South Carolina, are taking their first steps ever on this issue, while others, like Texas, are continuing legislative reform efforts. We commend states for introducing legislation to bring about changes in handling and processing. Joyful Heart will continue working with every state to meet the highest standard for comprehensive rape kit reform.
Taken together, the following are the key components of comprehensive reform:
- Annual or periodic statewide audits
- Mandatory testing of previously unsubmitted kits
- Mandatory submission and testing of newly collected kits
- Tracking system for rape kits
- Victim notification rights
- Funding to implement reforms
Related best practices, including articulating the intent of the law, providing definitions, extending or eliminating the statute of limitations, ensuring victim compensation funds are available to survivors whose kits have been part of the backlog, and extending evidence retention policies, can enhance and strengthen rape kit reform legislation. Joyful Heart encourages all states seeking reform to follow these best practices when drafting legislation and implementing rape kit reform.
Although no state has proposed comprehensive rape kit reform, the state bills introduced this year take important steps in the right direction.
9 bills in 8 states
Legislators in Alaska, Arizona, Hawai‘i, Kansas, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, and Utah have introduced bills to count their untested rape kits. Audits bring transparency and accountability to rape kit testing practices, and they are the first step towards comprehensive reform. Once the number of untested rape kits is known, planning for the necessary resources and initiatives can begin. Hawai‘i House Bill 668 and its companion, Senate Bill 506, both require an annual audit detailing information on the number of rape kits reported, collected, tested, not tested, and destroyed.
Mandatory Testing of Previously Unsubmitted Kits
2 bills in 2 states
Maryland has introduced a bill to require the submission and testing of all previously unsubmitted rape kits in law enforcement storage, while Oklahoma has introduced a bill focused on requiring the swift testing of all kits currently awaiting testing at labs across the state. Sexual assault survivors deserve to have their kits tested expeditiously, regardless of how much time has passed since the sexual assault. To date, nine states across the country require the submission and testing of backlogged kits.
Mandatory Testing of Newly Collected Kits
9 bills in 8 states
Arizona, Indiana, Maryland, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah have introduced legislation to mandate testing of newly collected kits. To prevent future backlogs, states must mandate deadlines for the submission and testing of newly collected rape kits. These bills ensure that collection, submission, and testing follow specific timelines.
15 bills in 13 states
Statewide tracking systems provide critical information about the status of a rape kit through secure systems—much like tracking a package. These systems allow local law enforcement, labs, and survivors to track the status of their rape kits from collection to analysis and promote transparency throughout the process. In Alaska, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Missouri, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah, legislators have introduced measures establishing a statewide rape kit tracking system. In Utah, House Bill 200 creates a tracking system with a victim portal, which provides survivors with real-time access to the information many survivors say they need to heal.
Victim Notification Rights
11 bills in 7 states
Arizona, Hawai‘i, Indiana, Maryland, Maine, Oklahoma, and Virginia have introduced legislation to grant survivors the right to be notified, upon request, about any change in the status of their case. Oklahoma Senate Bill 208 would require officers and medical facilities to notify a survivor of his or her rights in the medical and legal processes. The bill would also require survivors to receive, upon request, information about whether forensic analysis yielded a DNA match to a perpetrator in the state or national DNA database. Joyful Heart’s research on victim notification found that access to information about the status of their cases can promote healing for survivors of sexual assault, and we ask legislators to make victim notification a key part of reform.
The momentum for reform in states across the country has been growing over the years, but the problem remains.
-By Lily Rocha, Joyful Heart Foundation Policy & Advocacy Manager, February 16, 2017
END THE BACKLOG is an initiative of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.